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TORONTO (Reuters) - Canada will spend C$300 million ($267.8 million) to improve performance on a high-traffic stretch of railway between Toronto and Montreal, government and industry officials said on Thursday.
The funding will be used to increase capacity and trim delays by eliminating bottlenecks and reducing conflicts between Via Rail passenger traffic and Canadian National Railway Co freight trains.
About 4.6 million passengers rode VIA's trains last year, and the government-owned corporation expects that number to rise by 40 percent over the next five years due to track and train improvements, Donald Wright, chairman of VIA, told reporters.
"We would expect definitely a significant increase in passengers because of the reliability of our lines and faster speeds, and more creature comforts in terms of the things that we're changing inside of the cars," he said.
Projects at eight locations along the 539-kilometer (335-mile) line include construction of additional track to allow Via and CN trains to pass or overtake each other safely and quickly. Extensions to siding and yard tracks will allow CN trains to exit and clear the main line when necessary.
Wright said the changes would allow for the addition of two round-trip trains on its Toronto to Montreal and Toronto to Ottawa lines and would cut travel time between Toronto and Montreal by about half an hour.
"It will precisely reposition the passenger train as the modern answer to the highway gridlock and airport winglock."
The two-year project will begin within weeks.
Separately, VIA unveiled the first of 54 rebuilt trains in Montreal on Thursday as part of a C$100 million project announced in 2007.
Gary Goodyear, minister of state for science and technology, said the minority Conservative government was still considering a high-speed train between Montreal and Toronto, but that it wouldn't happen any time soon.
"The high-speed train is still clearly on the table," he told reporters. "The issue of high-speed train is far more complex and takes a lot more time. Probably a decade out."
Joe Volpe, transportation critic for the opposition Liberal Party, said the government should have put the cash from Thursday's announcement toward a high-speed rail project.
"They've already spent C$1 million along with another C$1 million apiece from Ontario and Quebec to update feasibility study number fill-in-the-blank for a high-speed rail service in that corridor," he told Reuters.
"It's time for them to get on board with a high-speed rail system and to do it promptly and not to squander money on improving something that they're going to abandoned soon enough."
Goodyear said the current rail infrastructure investment could be used for high-speed rail in the future.
Reporting by John McCrank; editing by Peter Galloway